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7 Effective Strategies to Improve Volunteer Management

Volunteers offer professional societies the equivalent of thousands, if not millions of dollars of skilled labor for free every year. A solid volunteer management strategy can harness this passion for the association’s mission, but many associations don’t make volunteer management a priority unto itself. These seven strategies can help you maximize the greatest resource at your disposal: your volunteers.

A 2016 study by Independent Sector found the value of volunteer time is $24.14/hour. In four years, it’s likely that number has increased. When members volunteer, they’re making more than just an investment of time – their company is making an implicit financial investment.

With that investment comes an expectation. Whether it’s learning a new skill, building their network, giving back to the industry, etc., the volunteer experience needs to be fruitful and meaningful. If you have 100 volunteers, you should be able to justify the $2,400+, per hour, investment the industry is making in your association.

But managing so many volunteers and ensuring their experience is fulfilling while maximizing staff time and limited funds can cause a headache for even the most experienced association executives.

Here are seven strategies to help you improve volunteer management in your association:

Work with your volunteers to reevaluate your overall volunteer experience on a regular basis

This is where it all starts.

Associations should reevaluate the volunteer experience they provide once per year at the very least. This should not be done solely by the staff. Bring your volunteers into the conversation. Regularly ask them to provide feedback and input. Your organization can then adjust the overall volunteer experience to align with member needs and industry trends, while providing clear return on that $24.14/hour investment.

Try quick one-on-one video conferences; grab coffee if they’re local; set aside time at your conference during breaks in the schedule. Maybe even build it into the last five minutes of each committee meeting.

Volunteers who feel their voice is heard and respected are more likely to continue supporting your organization.

Clearly define roles, responsibilities and the big picture

When hiring and training a new staff member, the job description is the strongest tool to guide the process. The same is true for volunteers. Provide them with a clear, DOCUMENTED description of their role and responsibilities along with those of the staff member. Doing this during volunteer orientation keeps volunteers accountable, focused on the goal, and aware of the expectations.

Some good items to include in this document are:

Align these documents with the strategic plan if you have one, and reiterate the association’s mission. Volunteers are most likely to be effective when they are clear on the organization’s mission and vision, and how their work will move the association forward.

Empower volunteer leaders to hold their peers accountable

Do you ever wonder why your volunteers aren’t responding to your emails following up on their assignments? One reason may have to do with the thousand other emails they get from your association asking them to do things (e.g., come to an event, try a new resource, etc.).

Your volunteers are busy, too, and – in most cases – work full-time jobs. One of the most effective ways to maintain accountability and ensure volunteer duties don’t become “out of sight, out of mind” is by empowering volunteer leaders to check in with their peers. Encouragement from a peer to follow through on tasks and assignments is often much stronger than from the staff because the volunteer can relate to their peer on a higher level.

The problem is, volunteer leaders don’t always feel it is their place to do this. Similar to the importance of a clear description of roles and responsibilities, it is vital that orientation for volunteer leaders includes the discussion surrounding their duty to keep their committee, task force, etc. on task. Giving your volunteer leaders this green light says it’s okay to follow up with peers and remind them of their commitment, and gives the leader a stronger sense of ownership.

Establish a sequence of leadership

Many associations spend so much time each year looking for next year’s committee chairs then training them on the job.

An easy fix is to establish a Chair/Vice Chair system for your committees. This gives the vice chair a year to observe how the chair sets agendas, runs meetings, manages the volunteers, etc. and lowers the amount of time needed for staff to train the volunteer leader.

There is also tremendous value in having a Leadership Development Committee who can identify emerging leaders in your membership and begin working with them to learn their interests, long-term goals and make recommendations for how they can begin taking on leadership roles in your organization. This creates a healthy leadership pipeline, builds elapsed buy-in/commitment to the organization, and helps ensure the right people are in the right positions moving forward.

Offer short-term volunteer opportunities

Volunteering doesn’t have to be all committees and board service. Most members, especially those who are new to the association, industry, even workforce, likely do not want to commit to a full year of service without dipping their feet in the water first.

Sometimes the best way for a member to feel connected to their association is for them to have a quick, tangible experience that directly fills a need for the organization, while also supporting their own personal or professional goals.

A good place to start is to list everything the association’s staff does at events and on a regular basis. Which items/tasks can be accomplished by a volunteer?

Among the countless short-term opportunities to involve your members as volunteers are assisting with check-in at events, introducing a speaker, proofreading the newsletter, guest blog posts and social media takeovers.

Invest in task management software

There are plenty of great tools out there to keep your volunteers on track, minimize items getting lost in long email chains and stay organized.

Many platforms offer free options, but even the paid subscriptions will not break the bank. Among the tools available are Asana, Basecamp, Boardable, ClickUp, Trello, TodoIst and more.

Two Words: Thank You

Everybody wants to be appreciated for their work. It’s basic human nature.

While facilitating a recent Indiana Society of Association Executives (ISAE) Strategy Academy session, Lowell Aplebaum, CPF, CAE, said an association’s volunteer program is only as good as the way volunteers are recognized.

The best way to retain great volunteers, keep them happy/engaged and ultimately make your life as a volunteer manager easier is to say thank you, and mean it. This means more than just having all the volunteers stand up to be recognized during a lunch at your convention.

There are plenty of ways to thank your volunteers that are easy, inexpensive, quick and likely to make a lasting impact. Some of these include: newsletter spotlight/shoutout, discounts on association resources and programming, hand-written thank you notes, letter of recommendation to the volunteer’s supervisor, LinkedIn recommendation, etc.

By the way, National Volunteer Week is the third week of April every year.

Learn more about making the most of your volunteer “workforce” with this RGI webinar on volunteer management.